Rebutting the Fallacious “Paradox of Tolerance”

So first, let’s define the Paradox itself. I will defer to this excerpt from Wikipedia;

Philosopher Karl Popper defined the paradox in 1945 in The Open Society and Its EnemiesVol. 1.

…Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.


There are several fallacies involved in this argument. Before I dig into them, let’s define a couple terms.

Define Respect:

“[Respect is] an act of giving particular attention.” – Merriam Webster

Define Tolerance:

I did a great deal of research before deciding on which definition to use. If you want to read more about cross-cultural definitions of tolerance, the UN has this great 102 page document which explores that question in depth. I like Neufeld’s definition:

“[Tolerance is] recognizing and respecting other’s beliefs and practices without sharing in them”

Intolerance is logically the inverse or not to recognize and respect the beliefs and practices of others, while not sharing in them.


Let’s transpose the definitions into the original argument.

“…If we recognize and give attention even to those we disagree with who are do not recognize and give attention to those who they disagree with, and if we are not prepared to defend a society which recognizes and gives attention to those it disagrees with against the onslaught of those who do not recognize and give attention to those they disagree with, then those who do recognize and give attention to those they disagree with will be destroyed, and the recognizing and giving of attention to those we disagree with will be destroyed with them.”

This is circular logic.

The user proposes to do the very thing they accuse the other group of doing. This is an argument against cultural tolerance, not an argument to protect it.

America Was Designed For This

Recently, I heard Trump described as a stress test for the American Experiment; two and a half centuries of systems of checks and balances designed specifically to allow people to disagree without losing their right to do so.

The most fundamental precept of the American system is the idea that it is ok, even good, for people to disagree.

For example, some people believe the world is flat, that argument is absurd but it is their right to believe that. We can recognize and give attention to this issue and maybe change their minds. Giving attention and recognition to people we disagree with is literally the definition of cultural tolerance. This argument proposes to be intolerant in order to protect tolerance. That is a clear fallacy.


This argument uses the word “Intolerant” to collectively describe anyone who the user disagrees with. The only distinction between the two groups in the argument is the the refusal of acknowledgement that the enemy group is alleged to be guilty of, and that is the very thing it proposes to deny them.

This flawed argument can be used to justify any action against any group. It is dangerous and irresponsible to use this argument to justify being the very thing it pretends to oppose.


The Big Idea

My point in the conversations leading up this was that if a person who is a bigot assaults someone, their crime is assault, not bigotry. And that it is not ok for people to advocate for violence against bigots because they disagree with bigots, or because some bigots commit crimes.

The right thing to do is to be tolerant, which means to recognize that those people exist and that we do not agree with them, and to give attention to the issue and try to make sound arguments to change their minds.

The wrong thing to do is post pictures of baseball bats or memes advocating for assaulting ambiguous cartoon villains. These are our neighbors and they need our help to understand why they are wrong.

It’s worth pointing out that this argument also applies to Muslims, Mexicans, and any other group who has been demonized because of the alleged crimes of some of its members.

Anyone who commits a crime should be held accountable, but to demonize everyone in a group because of the crimes of some of its members is evil. We should not be worse when we can instead be better.